Your cart is empty. Go to Shop

Gathering Jonathan Louis Duckworth

Paige was itching to paint something when she noticed and remarked on the birds—grackles and ravens mostly—that were flitting around carrying bits of copper wire and circuitry. Now that she mentioned it, the others at the garden party became so enrapt with the birds that they didn’t notice her sketching on a napkin.

The parties were her husband Bud’s idea, to distract Paige from her urge to paint, and they worked to a point. When she was with people, she was good, happy, even. But when the parties were over, the emptiness returned, and the happy space that laughter had created inside her lapsed in painful contractions, as with any muscle stretched too far.

“Been that way for a while,” Bud said. “On the way to work, I keep seeing birds gathering scrap.”

George, the biologist, a friend of Paige’s from college, said it was quite natural for birds this time of year. “They get it in their heads that they’re going to wipe us all out,” George explained, “so they gather parts to build a machine, but they never finish it.”

Everyone looked over the fence to the western horizon, where a haphazard pile of scrap and mechanical parts as tall as an office building loomed darkly against the afternoon light. Paige was drawing a monstrous and beautiful thing. Not the catawampus structure the birds were building, but what they wanted to build. Craning swan-like over the land, looming like a showerhead or a scorpion’s tail, a machine of devastating power.

“They’re birds,” said Terry, George’s partner and a philosopher. “Good with tiny details, sloppy with the big picture.”

People laughed and agreed that was true.

“Still, someone should do something about it,” Terry said.

“I don’t think so,” said George. “Because someone will do something about it, so no one needs to bother doing anything.”

People agreed someone would put a stop to it, so they didn’t need to worry.

Looking at the bizarre structure with its many dangling ends, Paige had a powerful urge to find a brush, but painting was too dangerous. She’d been a promising painter, but recently she’d had to stop painting because it threatened her health.

At first it had been the landscapes. She’d paint a dark fairy tale forest and then the next day feel a pernicious itch, as if there were scratchy Douglas firs growing under her skin. Then it was the portraits, who started visiting at odd hours. Never did she answer the door when the eyeless, inhuman figures she’d painted came knocking. Always it was Bud who sent them away with a firm, “That person doesn’t live here.”

Bud had been supportive for a while but made Paige throw out her supplies after her disastrous experiment with Japanese water colors. That had ended in an early morning trip to the E.R., where Paige received an emergency blood transfusion after the doctors drained three pints of paint from her veins. Now Paige had been clean for over three months, but the drive to pick up a brush was always there.

“Maybe it’d be better if they succeeded,” George said. “Ended this whole human experiment.”

Everyone laughed except Paige.

As she scribbled, the din of construction grew ever louder and the party guests fell silent. No more laughter. As the structure rose higher, it blotted out the sun.

Even knowing what was happening, Paige couldn’t stop herself from sketching.

“Getting awful dark early,” Mike said.

Above their heads, beams and cables and wires and solar panels were assembling into something immense, borne into the air by the will of a teeming whorl of songbirds.

And now Paige felt Bud’s hand alighting gently on her wrist. “Should you really be drawing?” he asked. “Isn’t that dangerous for you?”

Paige looked to her husband as the machine’s reactor droned to life, the sound like the blast of a foghorn, followed by a low thrum. How sweet Bud was, this man who’d installed a cat-door in their first apartment so the cats she’d painted could come in and out.

In that moment before the birds’ doomsday machine activated and disgorged its river of golden light that dissolved the atomic bonds of all matter within fifty miles, reducing everything to its native, raw state of disorder and infinite possibility, she wanted to put down her pencil and to unspool herself onto Bud’s lap, to melt into resin and leach into his clothing, his hair, his skin.

© Jonathan Louis Duckworth

Meet the Author

Jonathan Louis Duckworth

Jonathan Louis Duckworth

Jonathan Louis Duckworth received his MFA from Florida International University. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction appears in New Ohio Review, Fourteen Hills, Meridian, Tupelo Quarterly, Jabberwock Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere.

Become a Patron! Check our our NEW Patron rewards!


Receives weekly links to new stories, exclusive behind-the-scenes content and interviews with the authors, and our undying love.


Receives a free monthly download of our current issue, access to Ask Me Anything chats with the FFO staff, submission statistics, plus benefits from lower levels


Gain access to our monthly Mini-Critique sessions, the FFO Editorial Team slushpile wishlist , plus benefits from lower levels


A chance to have your work discussed by the FFO editorial team, receive 365 Writing Prompts and our latest anthology, plus benefits from lower levels


Receive a monthly mini-critique from the FFO editorial team and request custom writing videos, plus benefits from lower levels


Receive one flash fiction critique per month, mini-critique sessions, an opportunity to “sponsor-a-story,” plus all the benefits of lower levels!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Support Flash Fiction Online

Flash Fiction Online is a free online magazine that pays professional rates. So how do we make that happen? It’s due to the generosity of readers like you.

Here are some ways you can help:

Become a Patron.

Sign up to become a monthly donor and gain access to exclusive Patron rewards like manuscript critiques, insider submission statistics, the Editors’ Wishlist, free downloads of our current issue, and Ask Me Anything chats with the FFO staff. Read more…

Subscribe to FFO.

Never miss an issue! E-reader formats delivered to your inbox. Available from

Buy our issues & anthologies.

Each of our issues and anthologies are available in convenient e-reader formats (epub/mobi/pdf). Available from the Flash Fiction Online Store and WeightlessBooks.


Consider a one-time gift that fits your budget.

Advertise with us.

Have a product, service, or website our readers might enjoy? Ad space available on the website and in our e-reader issues. Sponsored posts opportunities are also available. Learn more…

Spread the word.

Love one of our stories or articles? Share it with a friend!

%d bloggers like this: